Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley recently published brain imaging results showing that cognitive engagement throughout the lifespan may substantially improve brain health as we age.
The team, headed by Dr. Susan Landau, imaged the brains of 65 individuals using a technique called positron emission tomography or PET. Using cutting edge labeling technologies, the researchers were able to measure the amount of beta-amyloid in the brains of these participants. Beta-amyloid is a compound associated with Alzheimer’s disease, and it is desirable to have less of it accumulate in the brain.
Study participants were asked about their engagement in cognitively stimulating activities — like reading and playing games — over their lifespans. Adults in their 70s who had the highest levels of cognitive engagement throughout their lives had brains that looked like adults in their 20s, with very little beta-amyloid visible. On the other end of the spectrum, healthy older adults who had the least cognitively active lives had brains that looked like the brains of Alzheimer’s patients, with lots of beta-amyloid. In an interesting additional observation, Landau and colleagues noted that cognitive engagement earlier on in the lifespan was most predictive of beta-amyloid levels.
This study — as with all research — has its limitations. In particular, it was not a controlled clinical trial, but rather a correlational experiment linking past behaviors to present brain states. In addition, the levels of cognitive engagement were measured by self-report rather than observation. That being said, this study is consistent with the notion that staying mentally active throughout the lifespan is good for you brain, and that it’s a good idea to start early with cognitively stimulating activities. So, challenge your brain today!
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